Somehow I dredged up the nerve to ask, "What are you doing?"
"I've been at the office for four days, working through the night," she said, laughing. "This is my idea of a bath." That was the beginning of a friendship that has lasted three decades. Neither of us could have predicted how dramatically our lives would shift in the years between that morning at the station and the afternoon we recently spent in my Santa Barbara teahouse garden.
Maria was just 23 when she came to work at WJZ, and one of the first in her family to pursue journalism—an unconventional choice, given the Kennedy legacy. Working her way up the ranks of broadcasting, she became a reporter at CBS News in 1983 and a coanchor on CBS Morning News (at the time, I so wanted a gig like that!) in 1985. The following year, she joined NBC News as a correspondent; she would go on to contribute to Dateline, interview everyone from Fidel Castro to Ted Turner, and earn a Peabody Award for a 1998 report on welfare reform.
In 1986 she did something even more unconventional for a Kennedy than becoming a newscaster: She married a Republican movie star. Four kids (Katherine Eunice, now 18 years old; Christina Aurelia, 16; Patrick Arnold, 14; and Christopher Sargent, 10) and a couple of Terminator films later, Maria and her husband, Arnold Schwarzenegger, settled into family life in a Los Angeles suburb, with occasional visits to the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts.
In August 2003 Arnold announced that he would run for governor during California's recall election. Maria was reluctant to return to politics, the landscape that had defined her childhood. But Arnold won, and in November, Maria became the First Lady of California—and found herself out of work as a journalist. The dramatic changes were not what she would have wished for herself. Yet they ultimately led to an important aha! moment, one that inspired Just Who Will You Be? , her sixth book, which was published in April.
Last October at the annual Women's Conference, an internationally attended forum she organized in Southern California, Maria summed up that moment in a riveting speech. "You can spend the rest of your life trying to figure out what other people expect from you...or you can make a decision to let that all go," she told the 14,000 women who had gathered at the Long Beach Convention Center. "For this people-pleasing, legacy-carrying, perfection-seeking good girl, that was a news bulletin."
Start reading Oprah's interview with Maria Shriver
Note: This interview appeared in the June 2008 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine.
Oprah: Let's start by admitting how weird it is to do an interview when we've known each other for 30 years.
Maria: I'm very proud of having such a long-term friendship. You were the first friend I made outside of my family. I was raised in this clan mentality; the only people who could understand what I was experiencing were my siblings and cousins. I went to an all-girls school, and I hung out with classmates there, but before I met you, I had never gone out and made a friend who wasn't steeped in my family's history. You weren't an Irish Catholic from Washington. You were a friend I made on my own, at a job I got on my own, in a city I'd never lived in before.
Oprah: At the time, I didn't know any of that. I was a little afraid of you when you first came to WJZ-TV.
Maria: Why afraid?
Oprah: You were such the talk! I don't know what gave me the courage to engage with a Kennedy, but you turned out to be so friendly.
Maria: Well, I was always conscious that people would think I got the job because I was a Kennedy and that I wouldn't be one of the team. I had to prove myself at every juncture. I worked hard.
Oprah: Do you think you overdid it?
Maria: Looking back, yes. I was so into my work for 25 years. I put on blinders to everything else; if I hadn't, there would always have been something more exciting happening in my family that could pull me away. So once I decided to go into journalism, I just worked all the time. I thought I had to show people that I would get in early, stay late or even all night, work on holidays. I didn't want to be the rich kid who was along for a free ride. And I thought you were such a big deal because you had an apartment.
Oprah: You had an apartment, too....
Maria: But mine was on the bottom floor of the little complex we both lived in, and it had no furniture!
Oprah: Oh, that's right. The bottom-floor apartment rented for less. As a single woman, I was always very cautious about the first floor; no matter what it cost, I'd get an apartment on the third floor or above.
Maria: You had a nice apartment and furniture, and you spoke in churches all the time. You'd say, "I'm going to preach on Sunday," and I was like, "What's up with that?" I didn't know anybody my age who preached, or even had something to say.
Oprah: Oh, gosh, I was like a preacher woman. I would be invited to speak at churches all around.
Maria: I know! I'm Catholic—I was used to priests doing the talking. I thought, "Who does she think she is that she can just get up and preach?" I mean, you lived upstairs and you ate with me in a supermarket....
Oprah: The supermarket in Cross Keys. They had a little dining section.
Maria: It was pathetic. And you would say, "I don't know what I'm going to do," and I'd think, "But you're already on TV doing the news and the weather, and you're preaching on Sunday!" To me, all that was big, but you didn't see yourself that way.
Oprah: No, not at all. I still have journals from those years, and I remember writing, "I understand why they call the show The Young and the Restless, because I am so restless." In my 25th year, I just didn't know what I was going to do with my life. I knew there was more than news stories, but I didn't know what that was. I didn't know what the future held. I was very anxious.
Maria: I've always been that way. I've always thought that the answer was in the next thing. If I worked a little harder, produced an incredible show, wrote a best-selling book, anchored the morning news, won a Peabody Award, worked with the Special Olympics, then I would be less restless. And I kept going and going and going.
Oprah: And after you accomplished each of these things, then what?
Maria: I'd have to find another thing. That's what I wrote about in the book Just Who Will You Be? I made the mistake of thinking that external accomplishments would bring me peace. I thought it was about the job or a book or making a name for myself. So many people would come up to me and say, "Which Kennedy are you?" At a very young age, I thought, "You're going to know which one I am." I decided that I was going to be the Kennedy who makes her own name and finds her own job and works like a dog. My comeuppance was when Arnold got elected—I became the Kennedy who was married to the governor.
Oprah: And you were right back where you started.
Maria: The 25 years I'd spent trying to make a name for myself seemingly went out the door. I started thinking that I'd taken the wrong road—one that ultimately hadn't curbed that restlessness.
Oprah: In your new book, you say that the constant doing wasn't just the way you were brought up; it was the doctrine of your life.
Maria: Correct. You must do, and do big. You must change the world. And you must do this 24/7. My mother, who's 86 now, has had several strokes this past year. She's on a pacemaker. But if you try to help her up the steps, she'll slap your hand. There's no rest. I look at my mom and think, "Wow, that's one way of living and accomplishing." And I admire her for it tremendously. But do I want to duplicate it? No. That's a big revelation for me because I'm my mother's only daughter. Yet I'm different from my mother—and that's okay.
Oprah: What helped you to get there?
Maria: A lot of deep digging. Losing my job at NBC News was big. I identified myself with my job. Whenever people asked what I was up to, I would talk about covering this or that subject, or traveling to New York. I was Maria Shriver, newswoman. I belonged to WJZ, CBS, or NBC. What I did became who I was. It gave me an identity separate from my family. When people looked at the Kennedys, they just saw us as a mass of good teeth and lots of hair, all smiling together and being very family oriented, sailing, playing games...
Oprah: Touch football at the Kennedy compound in Massachusetts...
Maria: Tackling people, throwing them overboard. That's how we operated. I sometimes knew that such competitiveness wasn't quite normal. When people would come over, they were like, "Whoa."
Oprah: I remember being at the compound once, early on in our friendship. As an outsider, I thought, "God, I'm actually here on the lawn with all the Kennedy cousins." But the games never ended. I'll never forget being in the house and someone saying, "Where is she? Oprah, we're starting another game!" And I ran into a closet and closed the door because I'd already done three games—enough! It was all very intense.
Maria: It still is! It's competitive when you walk in the door. It's competitive at the table. It's competitive on the playing field. It's competitive in a boat. Even my mother is very competitive at everything—from checkers to Ping-Pong to sailing to politics. When I was a girl, she'd tell my father, "Tackle her as hard as you tackle the boys! Knock her down!" She'd tell him to serve the tennis ball at me as hard as he could. I couldn't even return it—it would knock the racquet out of my hand. I thought that was cool. No other mother I knew was doing that.
Oprah: One of my favorite stories about your mother was the day I ran into her after the tsunami in Southeast Asia. I was on vacation and going to my boat on the wharf, and she waved me down. She said, "What are you doing out here on a boat? You and Maria need to call Teddy and form a committee to raise money. We've got to do something!" I said, "Okay, Eunice; it's good to see you." The next morning, she took a little boat out onto the water to find me! I was told, "There's a woman out here who says she needs to talk to you." I said, "Okay, I'll call Maria when I get home."
Maria: My parents' vacations were working vacations. We visited Special Olympics events, Peace Corps volunteers, prime ministers, and priests. They'd be trying to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on Christmas.
Oprah: What was it like at your dinner table every night?
Maria: "What did you do today?" "What did you read?" "What do you think?"
Oprah: That obviously had its positive effects.
Maria: Yes—it drives you. But if you're moving all the time, you're not stopping to be or think or experience nature. A couple of years ago, a friend of mine who'd worked his whole life bought a loft in New York and fixed it up. It was serene and peaceful. He said, "When I go there, I feel like I'm on a honeymoon with myself." I mentioned this to my parents, and they said, "What is the point of that? What are you doing to make the world a better place by going on a honeymoon with yourself?" They didn't get it. After I wrote my second book, I saw my father at the Cape. He said, "What are you doing with yourself?" I said, "I just wrote a book." "But you did the book already," he said. "That's over. You need to do a new thing."
Oprah: Does that make you feel like it's never enough?
Maria: Yes. When you come from a family that has achieved so much, you're left with the challenge of either making peace with that or finding some way to do what you want to do. It's impossible to compete with that level of accomplishment.
Oprah: Yes, how can you compete with a legacy that includes the presidency of the United States, the development of the Peace Corps, and the creation of the Special Olympics?
Maria: You can't. It's unbelievable public service. So I found my own way to contribute in my own area, journalism. It's competitive. It's creative. And no one else in my extended family is a journalist. I was feeling really good about my career in journalism—and then I lost it.
Maria: It all happened so quickly. NBC felt there could be a perception of a conflict of interest between my news job and Arnold's becoming governor. It was uncharted water. The producers said, "If we put you on the air while Arnold's campaigning, it'll look like we're endorsing him." A lot of people were uncomfortable with that, so they took me off the air while he was running for office. I thought I'd return to reporting when the campaign was over. And then he won, and that was that.
Oprah: Were you surprised?
Maria: I was surprised by the fact that he was even running. I was surprised that I was suddenly the First Lady of California. I was surprised that I lost my job. This all happened in 60 days. When Arnold decided to run in 2003, we were about to build a new house, and Terminator 3 was coming out, so Arnold was very involved in that. Also, my brothers and I had been focusing on my father; we'd discovered he had Alzheimer's. Around that time, I went to the Special Olympics in Ireland. When I came home, news of a California recall election was building steam. That's when Arnold told me, "I want to run."
Oprah: When you married him, you must have felt pretty safe that you were about as far away from politics as you could be.
Maria: Yes! I married a bodybuilder who became an actor and lived in California. No one thought, "Well, there's somebody who'll go into politics." I don't think I'd ever even met a Republican before I met Arnold. When he told me he was interested, I said I'd spent my whole life getting away from politics. My experience with politics was one of loss. My father lost his vice presidential bid on the McGovern-Shriver ticket in 1972. Campaigning was a great experience for me because it's where I was introduced to journalism, but the rejection of my father was so painful, so personal; I remember the sting of that defeat. Then my father tried to run for president in 1976, and that didn't go anywhere. People who said they would support him didn't. I'd learned early on that political life was about constant travel and being surrounded by 50 people in the house, and either you lose or you get assassinated. So I wanted nothing to do with that.
Oprah: What made you change your mind?
Maria: I realized that if I said no, I'd be stopping my husband from achieving his dream. It was a catch-22. So I told Arnold that he should do what he wanted to do, and I found myself in an intense, tumultuous campaign. Two months later, I was the Democratic First Lady of a Republican administration. Whoa! I was elated about Arnold's win, but I didn't want to be involved; I just wanted to go back to my job. But then NBC decided they were uncomfortable keeping me.
Oprah: Was that one of the more devastating moments of your life?
Maria: I had been fired once before, from the CBS Morning News; that was really devastating.
Oprah: I remember when you got that job. It was the dream job we all wanted! I had an agent who told me, "You're never going to get a position like that, because they already have Bryant Gumbel and there's only going to be one black person on network television." I said, "Can you just send my tape in?" I thought I could be a substitute for Joan Lunden. But anyway, you had the dream job....
Maria: Yes, I took the CBS job three weeks after I got engaged to Arnold, and I moved to New York to start working. I was thrilled. Those coanchor morning-show gigs were among the few on the networks that seemed locked down forever.
Oprah: So why did you get fired?
Maria: You know, I'm still unclear about that! [Laughs.] I thought I was doing really well. But the morning news show had been troubled. Of the three networks, our ratings at CBS were the lowest.
Oprah: You didn't care, though, right?
Maria: Oh, no. I was one of three women on a morning show! That's two hours. Live. I loved it.
Oprah: Even though you had to get up at dawn?
Maria: Loved it. I had moved into a hotel. I was working with Forrest Sawyer, whom I liked, and there were no expectations because we were in third place. I could do every conceivable subject: politics, culture, the arts. And I was getting paid more than I'd ever thought possible. Although I was engaged, I was single in New York City, and everything about it was terrific. Then CBS decided to move the Morning News from the news division to the entertainment division, and we were canceled. We got the news over a fax while we were in London covering the Sarah Ferguson–Prince Andrew royal wedding. I was shocked. I had assumed incorrectly that this group of colleagues was an extension of my family—they were all my best friends. My whole life revolved around these people.
Oprah: That's right. People at work do become your family.
Maria: I remember walking out of CBS and saying to myself, "I am never going back in that building again." I was so hurt and humiliated. In my mind, I was the first person in my family to fail. I'd gotten married by that point, so I moved back to L.A. and thought, "Now what?"
Oprah: Is that what you thought when you lost the NBC job, too?
Maria: Yes, but even more so. When I lost my job at CBS, I was 30 and childless; I felt like I could just start over. But when I lost my job at NBC, I was 48 with four children, and I was a Democrat in a Republican administration. All I kept thinking was, "Where will I go?"
Oprah: Just who will you be?
Maria: Exactly. I suddenly found myself lost and yet in a familiar place. When you grow up in a political family, you're trotted out a lot, and you're never exactly clear what you're doing. You're in a political pamphlet, in a commercial, at an event. You're part of a story. You have your role in that story.
Oprah: Tell me about that role.
Maria: As a child, it was just to be part of the Kennedy family. I was aware of the importance of having the family in the picture when someone ran for office. Politics is about competition, policy, and inspiration, but it's also about appearances.
Oprah: Even in our most private conversations, I haven't ever asked you this question: Was that Kennedy picture as happy as it appeared to be?
Maria: Oh, yes. Absolutely. We're a bonded family. Even though it was tumultuous at times, there is a very tight relationship between all of us. My cousins are like siblings and best friends. Not only do I talk to my brothers almost daily but I talk to several of my cousins weekly. We're very connected. Yet there was not a lot of talking among us about how we were feeling. We just kept going.
Oprah: Were you aware of what you all looked like to the rest of the world?
Maria: Not when I was a child. Growing up, there was a definite division between the parents and the children—to the point where many of us who are now grown think of ourselves as children when we go to the Cape. The adults ran the whole thing. My grandmother Rose was the matriarch. And even though he'd had a stroke, my grandfather Joe was an imposing figure. They lived in the big house, and when we went there, we wore our best clothes. My grandmother was always immaculately dressed, and she'd correct our grammar and quiz us. She was intellectual. She was revered by the entire family. So I was conscious of being in a large family with a hierarchy. Even now, when my parents walk into the room, I stand up. Our family is old-fashioned in that way.
Oprah: Were you aware of your family's legacy?
Maria: Yes. I don't think you could have lived through my uncle's assassination in 1963 and not been aware.
Oprah: But did you know what that meant to the rest of the world?
Maria: Yes, but only because others told me. To this day, people still come up to me and talk about how my family impacted their lives. They tell me that they've gotten involved in public service or joined the Peace Corps because of one of my uncles. When I became First Lady of California, people came up to me and said, "I hope you're going to be like your aunt Jackie." Others were angry because they thought I'd brought the Kennedy legacy to a Republican: "Shame on you," they'd say. "You should be mortified."
Oprah: And then there's the image: Camelot.
Oprah: I was at Tina Turner's house over Christmas, talking to her about Barack Obama. She paid no attention to me. But when Caroline Kennedy came out for Barack Obama, I got a phone call from Tina. She said, "Oprah, I heard everything you said to me. But if Caroline says it—and because of what her whole family represents—then I'm for Barack." I thought, "I was sitting at your dinner table, and you don't even know Caroline!" [Laughs.]
Maria: Yes, I'm aware that my family has that image. I'm also aware that people are sometimes reluctant to talk to me when they first meet me—like you were.
Oprah: Do you accept that?
Maria: I've spent a lot of my life trying to make people comfortable, even though I'm not exactly sure why they aren't.
Oprah: It's the difference they perceive between themselves and the image of your family that they've come to believe in. It's about measuring up.
Maria: I don't work anymore at trying to make sure others like me. I've given up on that. This is who I am.
Oprah: I remember being in the bathroom at the Kennedy compound and seeing framed letters from Nikita Khrushchev on the wall. I'm just sitting on the toilet, trying to act like it's normal to have the First Secretary of the Soviet Union's Communist Party in there with me. So I made a decision: I'm just going to be myself.
Maria: You know, this teaches me that so many of us go through life not communicating. If I'd been more confident, I could have said to you, "This might feel a little awkward, but it's going to be okay." I didn't know how to articulate that. I was always wondering whether a person was coming over because they were curious to see all that stuff and to meet famous people, or if they were coming there for me. And I didn't know whether you would accept me into your circle. "Am I enough?" That's a scary question to ask yourself. I've spent years looking for an answer outside myself.
Oprah: Maya Angelou once said to me, "You alone are enough. You have nothing to prove to anybody." She gave me a necklace with those words on it.
Maria: We are all worthy—not because we've accomplished something or because we're part of a famous family. You're worthy if you don't make the team, if you get Ds and Fs, if you don't get into the best college. That belief is the greatest gift any parent can give his or her child. You and I don't have to do an interview or talk about a project or save the world. We can just sit and be with each other and with ourselves. For me, that was a revelation. An awakening.
Oprah: That's what you write about in your new book.
Maria: That's right. I'm not the person I was four years ago, so here's the question: "Who am I?" The answer is that I can feel myself evolving into a different person. For the first time, I can actually say that I'm right where I want to be.
Oprah: As a friend who has observed you, I can say that you've become more of who you really are. In all the years I've known you, you've been running so fast. You never took a breath. It was so exhausting to watch.
Maria: Was it? I'm sorry. I exhausted everyone. I'm still working on that.
Oprah: You've come a long way. The fact that you could come to Hawaii with me last summer and just be was big.
Maria: Huge. And I was so happy. Years ago, I would've been too embarrassed to tell my family that there was no point to the trip other than just sheer friendship.
Oprah: Remember when I was trying to get you to go to a spa years ago? You said, "I haven't been to that spa, but I once stopped by and looked in." For you back then, three days at a spa was out of the question.
Maria: That used to be true. My mother was not the kind of person who had her hair and nails done, went to lunch, and looked out at the scenery. That wasn't the example I grew up with.
Oprah: Well, I'm not just looking at the scenery all the time, but I started to realize you were never looking at it.
Maria: And I regret that. I thought being a workaholic was good; it isn't. I regret that I didn't take time to stop and enjoy my friends or to have intimate experiences with people in my life, to talk to them and be quiet with them. I was too busy running against my restlessness. Maybe it was a combination of being thrown back into a political life, losing my job, and my parents getting old that prompted my change.
Oprah: Otherwise, you might have just kept plowing through.
Maria: Yes. The transition gave me an incredible opportunity I never would've had if I'd stayed at NBC. There, I would still be running; instead, I've taken all my reporting skills and applied them to my own journey. I've tried to craft the job of First Lady into a role that reflects me. That's about connecting people, empowering and inspiring them. I focused on parenting my children—I was determined that they would stay front and center in my life, and I wanted the house I created to be all about them. And in the past two years, I've tried to spend time with my parents, my cousins, and my friends in a way that I never have. I'm mothering my mother. I'm trying to live my life from my heart, being authentic to who I am. I'm trying to feel my way to my truth. I do things now that feel real to me.
Oprah: That's amazing.
Maria: A friend once told me, "As long as you keep playing the game of trying to be 'the right Maria' for everyone, you're never going to deliver the real Maria. You don't even know who the real Maria is." She was right. So I took a long, hard look at myself and began to strip away a lot of the stuff that kept me running. The most terrifying thing of all for me was to just sit with myself; I didn't know how to be alone. When you grow up in a huge family, you're never alone.
Oprah: When I'm alone, I'm so happy I'm dancing the hula!
Maria: Being able to be by myself is part of knowing that I'm enough. When I talked about that in the speech, women were sobbing by the thousands; that's their story, too. I thought my journey was about keeping my family's legacy going—and that is still part of my job. I'm very proud of my family and what it stands for. But I'm also trying to create a legacy as a mother, a wife, and a woman, and as Maria, separate from all those things.
Oprah: So what do you know for sure about who you are?
Maria: I'm a good-hearted person. I think I'm a kind woman. I'm a loyal friend. I'm also funny and a little mischievous! I've learned that it's okay for me to show up in a gypsy skirt with my hair somewhat askew. I'm comfortable with that now. I don't need to change people's minds about me. For me, letting go of that is just huge. I know that I'm a deeply spiritual person. I know that I need to surround myself with people who see me, nourish me, and love me for me, and I can even have the courage to ask for that. I know that I've learned how to be a mother and a daughter differently. After my mother got sick, I tried to get her out of the hospital and back on her feet as fast as possible. Then I began to consider: What if I try something completely different? What if I acknowledge that perhaps my mother doesn't like having a nurse and feeling dependent? That maybe she's afraid, that this is scary to her? And what if I hold her hand? So sometimes I just sit and paint her nails or hold her hand. These little acts of nurturing have led me to be not only more kind to her but more gentle with myself.
Oprah: That's right—because you are enough.
Maria: Even if I never accomplish another thing.